Muted hopes for next Iraqi vote

The unfinished constitution faces a referendum on Oct. 15.

The constitution that Iraqis will vote on in a referendum Saturday is proving to be more divisive than unifying.

Shiites and Kurds are using the document to press for autonomous regions. Many Sunnis are planning to vote "no." As a result, many Iraqi political leaders and groups - and some US officials - are already looking beyond the constitutional referendum to elections for a permanent government, slated for December. Their hope is that the election can begin to do what the constitutional process has not: diminish sectarian violence and deliver more stability.

The constitution hasn't helped to calm Iraq in part because the document remains vague and unfinished - and so has not resolved competing visions for the country's future. Those include proposals for powerful autonomous regions that, experts say, would probably lead to a dismembered Iraq.

With acrimony deepening among Iraq's principal communities, elections for a new government may offer the best chance for delivering a representative government - including the estranged Sunnis - and quelling the violence.

"We can all see the ethnic and sectarian identities taking root and growing, with the real potential for dismemberment that this direction implies," says Phebe Marr, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington specializing in Iraq's future.

"The hopeful scenario now," she adds, "is that because the constitution has all these very crucial blanks to fill, maybe that allows for getting past the December elections to a government more reflective of Iraq's complexities, and with Sunni representation, to produce a better governing instrument."

Recent controversies suggest how the constitution and the referendum process have torn Iraqis farther apart, as each faction sought to concentrate its power.

Last week feuding Shiite and Kurdish forces came together long enough to try to change the rules for the Oct. 15 referendum: Their revision would have made it all but impossible for the referendum to fail. Only after vehement protest from the United Nations, which is overseeing Saturday's vote, did the interim legislature reinstate the rule that the constitution can be rejected by a two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces.

US military leaders have recently expressed uneasiness over the rising discord in Iraq. Increasingly, they cite political, not military, actions as the solution to Iraq's violence.

"We've looked for the constitution to be a national pact, and the perception now is that it's not," Gen. George Casey, commander of US forces in Iraq, said in testimony on Capitol Hill last month.

Then last week Gen. John Abizaid, head of the Central Command, said on CBS, "Whether or not the constitution fails in the referendum should not necessarily concern us. What should," he added, "is whether or not the Sunni Arab community in Iraq participates in the referendum politically and in the upcoming governmental elections."

A rejection of the constitution would upset the schedule for elections. But five days out from the referendum, most observers expect a "yes" vote, with the majority Shiite and Kurdish populations supporting the constitution and others divided.

Recent weeks have also seen a sharp rise in revenge violence. The relentless and rising targeting of Shiite civilians by Sunni insurgents is now being met with killings and disappearances of Sunni civilians. "Death squads" - suspected of having ties to government- affiliated militias - are seen to be behind "cleansing" operations in Sunni towns and sectors of Baghdad.

As intense as the violence has become and as inconclusive as Saturday's vote may be, the referendum still has the virtue of moving Iraq toward elections that should produce a more representative government than last January's elections did, experts say.

"This referendum is not going to be the turning point that solves everything, but it will take things to the next step," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Middle East analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington. "The good news is that there will be a next step with the elections."

Sunnis have been registering to vote in large numbers. They may well vote "no" in the referendum, Ms. Yaphe says, but that means they will be primed to vote again in December - and thus to be represented in a new government.

That's the good side of the constitution remaining "a very vague document on key issues" like federalism and regional powers, ownership of oil revenues, and taxation, Yaphe says. "The Iraqis are kicking down the road some really big issues to be solved later, but what is positive about that is the Sunnis will be represented. They now recognize that after January [when they boycotted the election of an interim government] the process went ahead without them," she adds. "It cost them."

Iraq's growing factionalism, with even Shiites showing cracks in the United Iraqi Alliance that took them to victory in January's election, may be a plus politically for the Sunnis. It may also benefit other groups, such as secular Shiites: Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is working to draw moderate voters and fare better than the 14 percent he garnered in January.

At the same time, Iraq's neighbors are concerned about the country's growing divisions and the failure of the constitution to unite Iraqis.

Of major concern to Iraq's Sunni-governed neighbors is a proposal from Shiite leaders for nine provinces to group together as an autonomous super-region controlling Iraq's rich southern oil fields. Such a region would be likely to move even closer to Iran, some analysts say, than is the case now under Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. Such a scenario, along with prospects for an Iraq of autonomous regions if not simply divided up, is sending shivers through the neighbors.

"As the Kurds and the Shia moved closer to getting their own regions, everybody got worried. The Kurds were no surprise, but the idea of a nine-province Shia region in the south was the fat in the fire," says USIP's Marr. "All of this is causing a lot of concern around the Middle East, because for both Iraq and the Middle East this scenario of a weak central government with powerful regions would be a radical change in government structure."

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